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Wolfe, Bernard

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1915-1985) US author best known for his work outside the sf field. He gained a BA in psychology from Yale in 1935, worked for two years in the Merchant Marine, and for a time was personal secretary to Leon Trotsky (1874-1940) in Mexico, though he was not on duty when his charge was assassinated; The Great Prince Died (1959), a novel, is a very positive treatment of Trotsky. Wolfe subsequently became a war correspondent, newsreel editor and freelance writer, and contributed stories and articles to many leading magazines. He began publishing work of genre interest with the novelette "Self Portrait" in Galaxy for November 1951, soon following this with his only sf novel, Limbo (1952; vt Limbo '90 1953; cut 1961). This large and extravagant Satire is perhaps the finest sf novel of ideas to have been published during the 1950s, though Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (1952) also illuminates and anatomizes the American Post-War limbo. The tale is set in a Post-Holocaust era following World War Three, a war triggered and governed by Computers. Two societies survive: an Island Dystopia, where warlike impulses are cauterized by lobotomy; and that part of California that has escaped destruction, where aggressive impulses are dealt with differently: men deliberately cut off their own arms and legs in order to avoid the risk of war, substituting, for their lost limbs, Cybernetics-based prostheses incapable of taking up arms. Complex, ironic, hectoring and full of puns, Limbo was firmly based on Wolfe's knowledge of psychoanalysis and in particular on his understanding of the masochistic instinct in modern Man. It is perhaps for this last quality that J G Ballard hailed Limbo several times as the greatest American sf novel; Ballard may have sensed, too, that the novel also functioned as a corrosive assault upon the premises and instruments of sf itself, in a manner that foreshadowed the New Wave's similar animadversions a decade later.

Wolfe wrote very little subsequent sf, though "The Never-Ending Penny" (September 1960 Playboy) is a moderately telling Satire in the mode of the Slick Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; and Harlan Ellison persuaded him to contribute two stories to Again, Dangerous Visions (anth 1972): "The Bisquit Position", an impassioned anti-Vietnam-War tale, centres on the image of a napalmed dog; and "The Girl with Rapid Eye Movements" is about sleep research and ESP. In his "Afterword" to these stories, Wolfe expressed an extreme hostility to science and also to sf, which he considered its handmaiden. Further details of his career can be found in Memoirs of a Not Altogether Shy Pornographer (1972). [DP/JC]

see also: Cyberpunk; Cyborgs; Medicine; Weapons.

Bernard Wolfe

born New Haven, Connecticut: 28 August 1915

died Calabasas, California: 27 October 1985


  • Limbo (New York: Random House, 1952) [hb/Philip Grushkin]
    • Limbo '90 (London: Secker and Warburg, 1953) [vt of the above: hb/]
    • Limbo '90 (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1961) [cut vt of the above: pb/nonpictorial]



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